Japan approves Moderna and AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines as nation seeks to speed up slow rollout

The Japanese health ministry has formally approved the AstraZeneca and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines for use, as the government seeks a way to accelerate the country’s vaccine program ahead of the start of the Olympic Games in July. 

Until the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines were approved, Japan had been able to use only the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, meaning just two percent of its 125 million citizens have so far been fully vaccinated.

Two mass vaccination sites will be opened next week in Osaka and Tokyo to allow officials to begin the rollout of Moderna inoculations, which require two jabs. However, the shot will initially be available only to the over-65s, as Japan has prioritized ensuring its most vulnerable citizens are inoculated.

Moderna’s Chief Executive Stephane Bancel told the country’s Nikkei newspaper that, to support Tokyo’s vaccination campaign, it is considering manufacturing the vaccine in Asia or even in Japan itself.

The approval for AstraZeneca use comes despite Japanese officials having no plan to deploy it immediately, because of concerns about the potential link between the jab and rare instances of blood clots. The health ministry is said to be “monitoring the situation in other countries.”

Speaking following the Japanese government’s decision, a spokesperson for AstraZeneca confirmed it was “aware that our vaccine is not going to be used right away.” Nonetheless, Japan has agreed to purchase 120 million doses of the jab.

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A number of countries temporarily suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this year while officials investigated the reports of clotting. After the European Medicines Agency confirmed that the benefits outweighed the risks, many restarted their use of the vaccine.

Nine regions across Japan are currently subject to state-of-emergency Covid-19 restrictions, with officials having extended the measures on Friday to cover the southern island of Okinawa.

The increased restrictions have sparked concerns raised by doctors on Tuesday that the Tokyo Olympics should not go ahead in two months while the country’s health system is overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus cases. 

However, the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, has sought to allay their fears, claiming the event will be able to proceed safely and that organizers have put in place stringent measures to protect the health of both athletes and attendees.

Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has recorded 698,254 cases of Covid-19 and 11,940 deaths, but the figures have spiked in recent weeks amid a new surge across the country. 

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